Last Updated: Friday, 17 November 2017, 15:16 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Guatemala

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1997
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Guatemala, 1 January 1997, available at: [accessed 19 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
On December 29, the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) signed a "Global Peace Accord" that officially ended more than three decades of internal conflict in Guatemala. The URNG is a coalition of leftist insurgent groups mostly representing Guatemala's indigenous Mayan population.

The conflict, which began in the 1960s but reached its peak in the early 1980s, reportedly left more than 100,000 dead, an estimated 40,000 "disappeared" and presumed dead, 80,000 widowed, and 200,000 children orphaned. It also uprooted as many as one million people, many of whom fled to Mexico, other Central American countries, or the United States, and others of whom remained internally displaced within Guatemala.

During 1996, more than 4,000 Guatemalan refugees repatriated from Mexico; 32,500 Guatemalan refugees remained in Mexico. At the end of the year, some 200,000 Guatemalans were still considered to be internally displaced. Several hundred thousand Guatemalans who fled to the United States remained there. At the end of U.S. fiscal year 1996, there were 119,151 asylum applications from Guatemalans (cases, not individuals) pending in the United States.

Peace Accord The historic peace accord, which was several years in the making, was greeted with great enthusiasm inside and outside Guatemala, but also with cynicism among those who doubted the Guatemalan military's commitment to peace and the civilian Administration's resolve – and ability – to implement fully the accord's many, far-reaching provisions. Those provisions include a definitive cease-fire and agreements to resettle all those uprooted by the conflict; to establish a Truth Commission; to strengthen civil power and define the role of the military in a democratic society; to reform Guatemala's Constitution; and to legalize the URNG.

The international community pledged more than $1.9 billion (the European Union and the United States alone pledged $500 million) to help Guatemala implement the accord and its provisions. The international community had actively supported the peace process through a group that initially came together to monitor the return of Guatemalan refugees following another historic agreement in 1992 between the Guatemalan government and the Permanent Commissions of the Representatives of the Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico (CCPPs) that paved the way for repatriation. That group, the International Consultation and Support Group for the Return [of Refugees], included representatives of the governments of Canada, France, Mexico, and Sweden, and of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies and the World Council of Churches.

Peace talks between the government and the URNG had been taking place since 1994 and had resolved a number of contentious issues. However, the process received an important boost with the election of President Alvaro Arzœ, who took office in January. During his first months in office, Arzœ purged a large number of top officers in the military; promised to reduce substantially the size of the military and to bring it under greater civilian control; dismissed more than 100 police officers for corruption; met with representatives of the Communities of Population in Resistance-Sierra (CPRs – communities of displaced persons whom the military has repeatedly accused of supporting the URNG); and became the first Guatemalan president to meet directly with URNG leaders.

Arzœ also promised to demobilize the civil patrols, paramilitary groups comprised of peasants armed by the military that have also been responsible for widespread abuses. During the year, about 279,000 of the estimated 295,000 active patrol members were demobilized.

Just days prior to the signing of the accord, the URNG agreed to the government's proposal to declare a broad amnesty that would apply to the perpetrators of most killings and other human rights abuses during the conflict.

Although many positive developments took place in Guatemala during the year, human rights abuse continued largely unabated. The Archbishop's Office of Human Rights reported that, during the first ten months of the year, it had recorded 1,046 human rights abuses, including 112 extrajudicial executions and 785 assassinations. The Human Rights Procurator's Office received reports of more than 7,000 human rights violations.

Corruption in the military and police reportedly remained rampant, and crime rose markedly. The number of kidnappings, which the Washington Post called Guatemala's "most popular crime," rose by 250 percent. Even a member of the police department's anti-kidnapping squad was arrested for kidnapping, the June 17 Post reported.

Repatriation Conflicting forces affected the rate of return of Guatemalan refugees from Mexico. Although the progress made on the peace accord encouraged some to repatriate, land disputes between returnees and other local people or government agencies, violence against previous returnees, and the continuing impunity that abusers of human rights enjoyed dissuaded other refugees from returning home.

In January, Human Rights Watch/Americas issued a report saying that "recent cases of state violence against returning refugees cast serious doubts on the Guatemalan government's commitment to ensure safe repatriation." In an interview with Reencuentro (Re-Encounter), a magazine published by NGOs that support the return process, UNHCR's representative in Guatemala said, "Tragic events such as the massacre at Xam‡n [in which soldiers killed 11 returnees on October 5, 1995]...had a very negative effect on [how] refugees in Mexico...[perceived] security conditions in Guatemala." He added that the impunity that benefitted one of the soldiers accused of the massacre created a negative impression on the refugees in Mexico.

According to UNHCR's office in Guatemala, the cease-fire agreed to by the government and the URNG in March as part of the peace process brought "to a stand still" armed confrontations in areas surrounding returnee communities. However, although threats from outside diminished, UNHCR said that internal divisions that surfaced during the year in the returnee communities led to the deterioration of democratic structures within the communities, and to internal strife, including threats, illegal detentions, forced labor, and expulsions from the communities. The Guatemalan authorities apparently adopted a hands-off approach to the problems in the returnee communities.

Altogether, about 4,000 Guatemalan refugees repatriated from Mexico during the year. A majority, some 2,700, returned in groups through return movements organized by the refugee leadership; another 1,300 returned individually or in small family groups through UNHCR's repatriation program. A total of 44 Guatemalans repatriated from other countries in 1996.

Internal Displacement It was difficult to determine how many Guatemalans remained internally displaced as a result of the conflict. In recent years, the government reported some 200,000 displaced persons. UNHCR's office in Guatemala noted, however, that of the up to one million people who became internally displaced between 1981 and 1983, the vast majority had returned to their homes shortly after being displaced, and that there had not been new displacement in recent years. It added that "there is increasingly consensus that most people [who remain displaced] will not return, even after final peace agreements are signed, as their displacement no longer relates to the reason for their flight.... [Many] have visited their home communities but decide to not return based on economic or social ties in their new location combined sometimes with the perception of being held suspect...for having lived many years outside." UNHCR added, however, that it is important to note that these populations continued to suffer the economic and social consequences of the conflict.

UNHCR was involved with only 8,000 displaced persons, mostly returned refugees who have been unable to resettle in their original homes, but estimated that more than 200,000 displaced persons still wanted to return home or wanted assistance to resettle permanently in their new locations. UNHCR said that about 26,000 displaced persons were still located in the conflict areas, but that most of the displaced were living in the capital, other urban centers, or in the agricultural areas near the south coast.

A number of displaced families that had been living in CPRs in the Ixcan region returned to their villages of origin, while some 300 other CPR-Ixcan families firmly resettled on land purchased for them by the Catholic Church. Some displaced families returned to villages that had earlier been repopulated by refugees who returned from Mexico. Others were assisted to return home or resettle by the National Council of Displaced Persons.

The Global Peace Accord's agreement on the return of uprooted populations, including internally displaced persons, provided for the formation of a "Technical Commission," composed of representatives of the government, the URNG, and of uprooted persons themselves, to design projects to assist displaced persons to return home and to channel resources to those projects.

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